Since You Asked: A Pall Mall by any other name ...
I'm wondering about the cigarette brand Pall Mall. I know in England they pronounce it "pell mell" but where did this name come from and what does it mean?
— Tom M., Central Point, by phone
This one is confusing as all get out because there are two different word combinations involved with distinct etymologies, but with convergent pronunciations. Henceforth, we plunge pell-mell into the Pall Mall melee!
Plenty of sources confirm that Pall Mall is a street in Westminster in London, and long home to high-falutin' gentlemen's clubs (not to be confused with a Medford-style "gentleman's club" — picture old men sitting in large leather chairs in front of a chasm of a fireplace smoking pipes under a giant rhino's head while discussing the Zulu wars) and formerly home to the city's fine arts scene. The street was named after a popular game from the 16th and 17th centuries that was the predecessor to croquet, and which used to be played in that very area before it became a concrete and asphalt jungle.
The street was certainly the inspiration for Pall Mall brand cigarettes, introduced in 1899 as a premium cigarette marketed to upper-class smokers. A 1950s American Tobacco Co. cigarette commercial we found on YouTube confirms the brand is pronounced "pell mell," though many Americans pronounce it how it is spelled. (It was the number one brand until Winston came along with the "Winston Tastes Good Like a Cigarette Should" marketing shtick.) But the odd pronunciation goes much further back.
According to Michael Quinion's amazing "World Wide Words" Web site (www.worldwidewords.org), Pall Mall is wholly distinct from the word "pell-mell," which means "something that happens in a confused, rushed, or disorderly manner." Quinion asserts, and our dictionary confirms, that word has a different source in the French pêle-mêle, taken from the Old French "mesler," meaning to mix. The croquet-like game comes from the French-fried pallemaille, a version of the Italian words palla (ball) and maglio (mallet).
Quinion's entry on the subject cites the diary of Samuel Pepys from April 2, 1661: "So I into St. James's Park, where I saw the Duke of York playing at Pelemele. ..." Quinion points out that the game was more usually spelled "pall-mall," but Pepys wrote it as he heard it in upper-class speech, so perhaps this is where the "mispronunciation" comes from.
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